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Wind blows through the car’s broken windows, sending shivers through Seth’s body. He curls up in the back seat and pulls his jacket close.
The abandoned car under Consecration Bridge provides adequate shelter for a homeless kid in the docile autumn months, but in the winter, it’s no better than sleeping outside. Seth sighs, his breath leaving his mouth like fog. It’s time to find a new place to hide.
He sits up and adjusts his knit cap, throwing his hood over it. The car doors don’t open, rusted shut after years of sitting in the rain, so Seth has to climb out the window. The gravel crunches under his feet, scraping together and making a sound too much like his empty stomach for his liking. Seth shakes his head, deciding to ignore it, and stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets.
The streetlights bask the neighborhood in pools of amber light. Seth avoids them, sticking to the shadows as he makes his way through the city streets. He isn't sure what he’s looking for. Perhaps he’ll forgo sleep tonight, and just keep moving to stay warm. There are only so many places a kid like him can go.
Seth stops to blow into his hands. He leans against the corner of a brick building, looking around for any other wanderers as he rubs his palms together. Perhaps he can lift a wallet or two and grab a coffee at some twenty four hour place. Much to his disappointment, every block within his sight appears to be empty.
The only other face he sees is the bronze statue of the city founder perched in the center of a small park across the street. He’s a lanky man with a long coat and a top hat. Seth looks away from it, feeling uneasy under its gaze.
Shivers run through him again. He lets out another sigh, and the smoky fog of his breath engulfs his face, blocking his eyesight. Seth waves the fog away as his brow furrows in confusion. Usually, his breath disperses within a second of being exhaled.
That felt like someone blew scentless cigarette smoke in his face. Coughing, Seth pulls the collar of his jacket over his nose. He breathes into his shirt and feels a few degrees warmer.
Lifting himself off the brick wall, Seth heads further into the city. The bridge he sleeps under resides just on the edge of downtown, although no one ever seems to use it. He has to walk a few more blocks to find open storefronts and restaurants.
Under the neon sign of a diner, Seth spies a crumpled bill dropped in a puddle on the sidewalk. He kneels down to pick it up, flicking it back and forth to get the water off. Smiling when he sees it’s a five, Seth stands up and stuffs the bill into his pocket. Looks like he’ll get that coffee anyway.
He pushes open the door to the diner, basking in the heat the room provides. The lights are too bright for his eyes, but Seth doesn't care. He can hang out here for a few hours until he can figure out what to do. Sliding into a booth, Seth pulls a laminated menu towards him. A plump waitress in her early fifties approaches, pen and notebook in hand.
“What can I get for you, sweetheart?” she asks.
Seth’s mouth waters at the pictures of pancakes and burgers and steaks plastered all over the menu, but resists the temptation. He looks up at her and smiles. “Just coffee, please.”
“Coffee, got it,” says the waitress, making a note. She peers at him over her book. “Are you the kid I see over by Consecration Bridge every once in a while?”
Seth crosses his arms and nods. “What about it?”
“You shouldn't be playin’ under there,” the waitress says.
“I’m not playin’,” says Seth. He resents the statement on multiple levels, but mostly the idea that he’s still young enough to just play around. Sure, he’s small for his age, but he’s not a baby.
“What’re you doin’ out so late, then?” she asks.
He hesitates, the words stopped in his throat. It’s too embarrassing to admit that he’s homeless. Curling his lip over his teeth, he sneers. “I’m trying to get coffee.”
The waitress huffs and turns away, walking back to the kitchen to grab a pot. Seth pushes himself into the far corner of the booth. He stares out the window into the black night. Admitting his predicament could have its advantages, if only he weren't so proud.
Someone could take him in, or direct him to some less discriminating shelter. They might give him a free meal, or a warmer jacket, anything. However, they might try to put him back in the system, do their duty until he’s eighteen and doesn't matter anymore. Or worse still, they could try to send him home. He rests his forehead against the glass and lets his breath fog up the view.
The waitress comes back and pours the steaming liquid into a mug. Seth ignores her until she walks away, then pulls off of the window. Cupping the mug in his hands, he brings his face close to the surface. He inhales the bitter aroma and the immerse heat. It cuts through the cold in his bones and burns under his skin. When he exhales, Seth almost thinks he smells smoke.
He drinks the coffee black, not wanting to spoil its purity with cream and sugar. Each gulp scorches the roof of his mouth and the back of his throat. The liquid sears his insides all the way down to his stomach. It’s too hot. It’s too hot like it’s too cold outside. Too hot to stay awake, too cold to sleep.
The next time he looks down, the mug is empty. Seth glances around the diner, searching for the waitress, but the whole restaurant appears to be empty. He sits back in his seat, tapping his fingers against the table as he waits for anyone to come out. After a few minutes, Seth pulls out the still soggy five, tucks it under the mug, and leaves without a word.
The cold hits him like a tidal wave as he steps outside. He bundles up as much as he can, pulling his cap over his ears and his collar over his nose, but the wind seeps through them without effort. Shivers make it hard to walk. With each step his body trembles, shaking his whole world off balance.
Seth kneels down at the end of the block and braces himself against a concrete wall. He closes his eyes and tries to focus on breathing, but it feels like icy fog freezing down his throat. Covering his mouth with his hand, he coughs with a violent shudder, sending him off his knees and face-down on the sidewalk.
“You should go back to the bridge.”
The concrete scratches at his skin as Seth tries to lift his head up. Standing over him is a figure he can’t quite make out.
Gritting his teeth, Seth shakes his head. “No way. Fuck you, man.”
“Do you know what 'consecrate' means?” the figure asks. “It means to make something sacred. Our bridge makes our city sacred, pure from all the unholy things that might adulterate it.”
“What?” Seth asks, choking back a cough.
“It will be easier if you just pass under the bridge,” says the figure.
Pushing himself off the ground, Seth finally manages to sit up and get a better look at the person before him. In the darkness, he can’t make out any features, but his tall top hat is a dead giveaway.
“You--” Seth starts, but the figure clicks his tongue and shakes his head.
“I did not build this city so that vagrants like you could ruin it.”
Seth frowns. “I’m not ruining it. I’m not doing anything.”
“Exactly. You don’t contribute anything to this grand society. You’re a leech.”
“I’m a kid!” says Seth. He over his eyes with his hands. “This isn’t happening. I’m hallucinating.”
“In my day, young men of your age worked, had jobs, families. You have nothing. You are nothing.”
The wind races through the streets again, sending another shiver through Seth’s already rattling bones. He stares up at his city’s founder. “It’s not my fault.”
He cocks one bronze eyebrow. “They all say it’s not their fault.”
“No, it’s not, I swear!” Seth says, clasping his hands together and pleading. “My dad kicked me out. He caught me and Andy Sta--”
“I know what you are, boy,” says the Founder. “Even if you had anything to bring to this world, it would be tainted by your grievous sins.”
“Just, just... fuck you, alright?” says Seth. Tears sting his eyes, but he holds his head high. “You’re just some Victorian era asshole, you don’t know anything. The world has changed!”
The Founder leans forward, bringing his bronze face close to Seth’s. “I know two things. I know that my city will never change, and that you will die tonight.”
Seth looks away and sighs, another cloud of smokey fog escaping his lungs.
“See?” the Founder says. “Your soul is draining out of you bit by bit. You won’t make it to dawn.”
“Then so be it,” says Seth. He crosses his arms over his chest and leans back against the building. “But the only sinner here is you, asshole.”
“Do not speak to me in such a manner, vagrant,” the Founder says.
“Your hands are red,” says Seth, looking up at him with a smile. “I always wondered about that. When we played in the park and climbed all over you, I could see that your hands were red. Now I know why.”
The Founder glances down at his metal palms, then curls his hands into fists.
“Don’t you dare insinuate that--”
“The red is blood?” Seth asks. He coughs again, and another trickle of smoke pours out of him. “If you do this to everyone like me, yeah. If you kill everyone who’s helpless or different or whatever, then yeah. There’s blood on your hands, and no 'consecration' is gonna wash it off.”
The statue stands there in silence, staring down at him. Seth stares back. He no longer feels cold. It’s almost numb, really. He smiles again and closes his eyes. Finally, he can sleep.